British parliament to hold Citizens' Assembly on climate crisis

LONDON (Reuters) - British lawmakers will hold a Citizens’ Assembly to gather views on how to meet the country’s newly strengthened emissions targets, parliament announced on Thursday, in response to growing public unease over the climate crisis.

FILE PHOTO: A person walks across Waterloo Bridge during the Extinction Rebellion protest in London, Britain April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Although the assembly, to be held over several weekends this autumn, would have no independent powers, legislators said its deliberations would inform broader discussion over how Britain can deliver on a commitment to reach net zero carbon by 2050.

“Ending our contribution to climate change can be the defining decision of our generation in fulfilling our responsibility to the next,” Greg Clark, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, said in a statement.

Britain has seen an upsurge in climate activism this year, with civil disobedience movement Extinction Rebellion occupying four sites in central London for 11 days in April, which forced parliament to declare a symbolic ‘climate emergency.’

In the latest protests, Extinction Rebellion volunteers disrupted an oil industry dinner hosted by the Natural History Museum in the capital’s upmarket South Kensington district on Thursday evening.

Protesters formed a circle under a 25-metre long skeleton of a blue whale, nicknamed Hope, which hangs from the museum’s ceiling, and paraded a giant pink dodo in the street outside, according to photographs shared on social media. The movement said about 200 protesters had taken part.

Meanwhile, at London’s landmark Mansion House building, several women wearing red evening dresses and white ‘climate emergency’ sashes briefly interrupted a high-profile speech by Finance Minister Philip Hammond at a black-tie banquet.

Environmental group Greenpeace said it had organized that protest, in the heart of the banking district, accusing the finance ministry of trying to water down climate action.

Industrialized countries have started to make increased use of Citizens’ Assemblies, to serve both as pressure valves on contentious issues and to mobilize support for decisions that legislatures driven by election cycles might struggle to pass.

Participants are often chosen to reflect the wider population in terms of demographics such as age, gender, ethnicity, class and sometimes political attitudes. They have been used in Ireland, Canada, Australia and the United States.

Britain became the first major economy to enshrine a net zero carbon target into law last week, a move that would imply profound and rapid transformation in sectors from energy and transport to food, farming and housing.

Although government decisions to support fracking, back a third runway at Heathrow and cut solar subsidies have raised questions about its commitment to a low-carbon world, some industries see big gains from energy transition.

“I hope the Citizens’ Assembly will demonstrate that, when all is considered, there is strong public support – even demand - for the Government to take the action necessary to deliver the benefits of net zero by 2050,” said Rachel Reeves, chair of parliament’s business, energy and industrial strategy committee.

Earlier on Thursday, Extinction Rebellion had said the announcement of the Citizens’ Assembly was a “first step” toward giving people a voice.

“However, we cannot pretend that this is a legitimate assembly with real or legislative power,” it said in a statement. “A half-arsed attempt at a Citizens’ Assembly will doom the process and the results.”

Although Extinction Rebellion has listed the convening of a Citizens Assembly among its main demands, the movement had envisaged a much more ambitious gathering invested with decision-making power, and members chosen by lot, like a jury.

Reporting by Matthew Green; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and James Dalgleish